Reading Groups

The perfect choice for your next reading group book!

Julie Mannix von Zerneck was born on the Main Line in Philadelphia in the early 40s, a very different time and place than the America of today. She grew up with writer/adventurer parents who were away most of her childhood, which she spent in Convents of the Sacred Heart all over the world.

In 1963, when she met and fell in love with the man who would father her child, this was a union that the society from which she came would not accept. When she became pregnant she was torn away from the man she loved, who, it turned out was still legally married to another woman. Days later, she found herself in a mental hospital, facing papers she was asked to sign to authorize a therapeutic abortion. She chose to keep her baby. This was a child growing inside her, whom she already loved, a child conceived in love.

She endured the rest of her pregnancy in a state mental hospital for the mentally challenged and the criminally insane, fighting each day to stay alive and keep her baby safe. Before giving birth to her daughter, Julie made a decision: though it would tear her apart for the rest of her adult life, make her prey to an all-consuming sadness she called the “beast”, she decided to give her baby a life of security, an ordinary life, a life with a mother and a father. A family. She gave her child up for adoption so that this child would have everything that she, herself, could not give her.

Though Julie would later go on to reunite with the baby’s father, Frank von Zerneck, and together they would have two more children, her firstborn was always with her, constantly in her heart, always in the faces of children passing by, always in her dreams. And for decades she did all she could to find the child she had named Aimee (the name Aimee, meaning love).

Her daughter, who was renamed Kathleen, now Kathy Hatfield, found her birth parents in 2007. She had, as Julie had dreamed, been adopted by an incredibly loving mother and father and became part of a family that was large, warm and simply wonderful. But the fairytale had ended, as they all must, and her mother died when Kathy was just seven. Still reeling from the loss of an angelic woman, the only woman Kathy had called Mommy, she was introduced to a stepmother who would ensure that the rest of her childhood would be decidedly un-fairytale-like. It was a childhood she survived by clinging to the strength, love, kindness and wisdom her father displayed every day, and by sheer force of character on her part.

It was at the age of twelve when she found out that she was adopted. And she found out in a way that, were she someone weaker, less strong-willed, it might have broken her. At that young age, she was forced to wrap her mind around what it meant to not be biologically related to the father she adored and the mother she loved and mourned. At that tender age, she was forced to understand her own mixed-up, frightening feelings about something most adults have a hard time dealing with.

But she turned into a strong, successful woman, who found the man of her dreams and had two children of her own. Finding her birth family was an accident, more than anything.

Julie and Kathy, after their first contact, decided not to meet face-to-face for nine more months. They afforded themselves what nature affords all mothers and their offspring: a gestational period, in which they slowly started to get to know each other.

SECRET STORMS is the brutally honest, unveiled retelling of these women’s stories. Theirs is just one story out of millions, many of which do not have “endings” as “happy” as this one, though this is a story far from over. It is, however, ultimately a book about hope.

To invite the authors to appear via Skype at your reading group, please contact us.

Suggested Discussion Questions – authored by Dr. Twila D. Patten

The most essential questions are those conceived of by the reader at that magical intersection where personal experience meets the creative landscape of the book, resulting in meaningful connections.  The following questions are meant to be a resource.

Text-to-Text Connections

  1. Does Secret Storms: A Mother and Daughter, Lost then Found (or any part of it) remind you of another book? Why or why not?
  1. What are your thoughts about these two quotations?
    • I was simply a child who wanted more than anything to be a saint.  Being a saint, after all, meant you were loved by everyone. (p. 39).
    • “Yes,” I whispered back. “If you had been my child, I would have loved you very much.” (p. 59)

Text-to-Self Connections

  1. In what way(s) do you personally connect to Secret Storms: A Mother and Daughter, Lost then Found?

  1. What message(s) do you take away from the book?

  1. If you were able to speak or write to teenaged Julie or Kathy, what would you say?

  1. What do you want to say to the families in this story today?

  1. In your life, have you had unlikely heroes or heroines?

  1. Have you or someone you know ever had to overcome hardships such as those that Julie, Kathy, and their families experienced?

Text-to-World Connections

  1. Could a child whose only issue was pregnancy be institutionalized today?

  1. What message would you give to today’s parents whose daughters were in similar situations as Julie?

  1. Where could a present-day Julie get help? Where could a present-day Kathy get help?

  1. Have you ever given much thought to the adoption process before?  If not, what are your thoughts about it now?  Have your views on adoption changed since reading the book?

Literary Connections

  1. Explain the ways in which the book structure is used to advance the story.

  1. What motifs or symbols stood out to you in the book?

  1. What literary devices are the writer of this quotation (Julie) using when she writes the following:

Life is funny.  Life is strange.  Life just makes you shake your head sometimes in wonder. (p. 163)

  1. Compare Julie and Kathy’s writing styles.

  1. What do you see that is alike or different in their personalities?

  1. Do you see any similarities between Julie’s childhood animal menagerie and her teenage human menagerie in the institution? How or how not?

  1. Some reviewers have said Secret Storms: A Mother and Daughter, Lost then Found is a book that ‘exudes humanity’. Literary characters, even characters based on real people, can be measured by the following:

    • What they say
    • What they do
    • What others say about them
    • What others do to them

Using one or all of these as points of reference, identify moments where this humanity is revealed in Secret Storms: A Mother and Daughter, Lost then Found?

  1. What do you consider to be other themes of the book?

  1. Read the following quotations and discuss them in whatever context is appropriate  (in terms of meaning, literary techniques, symbolism, and life in general)

    • It turned out Mafia Whore would make herself my protector in the months to come.  She was my bodyguard, in fact.  There were some very rough characters on the ward and never once while I was there did any one of them get within a foot of me without Mafia Whore appearing suddenly at my side from nowhere.  She never talked to me, never even made eye contact with me, but she took care of me from the moment my baby and I entered that ward on November 22nd until we were finally discharged. (p. 30)

    • My doubts fall away and leave me weightless and whole.  I turn.  I look.  I see the frame of my face in another’s.  I see my eyes staring back at me.  It’s her.  It is her.  She is lovely.  She is delicate.  She is a familiar mix of me. (p. 301)

    • They’re expecting Aimee. I’m not Aimee. I can’t be anything like the Aimee they imagined me to be, I worried. What if I’m not as easy to love as the baby they gave away? What if this doesn’t work out? What will I tell my daughters? What will I tell myself? (p.295)

    • It was a relief to talk about myself as an aspiring actress and not about the other self that was a Main Line debutante. There was freedom in not being the self that grew up with a menagerie of wild animals that everyone always wanted to ask questions about. It was liberating not being the daughter of adventurers who traveled the world for half a year at a time, the writers of books. To him, it was just who he saw. (p.76)

    • Gloria wasn’t all bad; she did have days that made me want to nest in her arms and surrender to her care. The truth is, I very much wanted a mother, and most of the time I wanted her to be my mother. (p.179)

    • I would have been good. I would have behaved. Eaten my vegetables, cleaned my room, said “please” and “thank you.” I would have made you love me. Somehow. (p. 297)

    • We have taken our time getting to know one another. Our relationship has had the luxury of a gestation period—a block of time that nature affords to every mother and her offspring. (p. 323)

    • “If only—” I started, but tears stopped me. He held me as I cried, rocking me. “If only,” I managed to go on, “I’d known you were waiting for me all this time. If only I’d known there was a chance. If only I’d known there was a possibility. We would be a family now. If only…”  (p. 137)

    • It had never happened before, this mother and I thing. Now that I’d had my first taste I was ravenous for more. I didn’t want it to be over. If only time could stand still. If only the past could disappear. (p. 142)

    • “I wonder why I wasn’t stronger. Why didn’t I say no?”
      “Why didn’t you?”
      “I was too weak.
      “You were too weak to say no.”
      “Yes, I was.”
      “Why?”
      “Because I was just a child myself.”
      “Children say no.”
      “Yes, they do. But I didn’t. I never did. I never did say no.” (p.169)

  1. What other quotations in the book would be valuable for discussion?